Love your cats but hate that litter box smell? Don’t despair. “It is very feasible to live in a house with cats and without odor,” says Jessica Burge of Minneapolis, owner of The Café Meow, Minnesota’s first cat café. “If you are willing to put in the work to keep their space clean, in turn it will keep your house clean and smelling fresh.”
When we think about combating litter-box odor, we’re usually motivated by the desire to make things more pleasant for us humans, but what about your cat?
“What they smell is even more important than what we smell,” says Susan Hamil, chair of the board of directors for the Laguna Beach, California-based Blue Bell Foundation, a nonprofit that offers lifetime care for senior cats whose owners can no longer care for them. “Their noses are so sensitive. We don’t have an appreciation for what the cats are smelling.”
The root of the smell
Just what is it about cat waste that creates such an offensive odor in the first place? Cat pee is generally the worst culprit.
“Urine is composed of metabolic waste products like urea,” says Dr. Aimee Simpson, medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia. “When bacteria break down the urea, it creates an ammonia-like odor. Other factors like hormones — think tomcat urine — diet, medications and health issues like diabetes or urinary-tract infections can all impact the smell of urine.”
Though not always as noxious as cat pee, cat poo is no bed of roses. Feces contain sulfur compounds that smell bad, and cats with certain digestive issues or medical conditions may experience smellier poop than healthy cats.
Combating litter-box smell takes a two-pronged approach. First, keep your cats using the boxes so smells don’t build in other places of the house. Even if you have the recommended one box per cat plus one more, some cats in multi-cat households are extra sensitive about other cats using the litter box. Fastidious cats may refuse to use a box if another cat has already used it even once.
Blue Bell is home to 20 to 25 cats in each of the two houses on the facility’s property. “People come to the Blue Bell and they say, ‘There is almost no cat odor in here at all,’” says Susan, who has been on the Blue Bell board of directors since 1989. “Our goal is to keep those cats using their boxes.”
Blue Bell has developed a tried-and-true method of keeping cats going inside the boxes. “We have a use once policy,” Susan says. “Once those boxes are used, we change that box out. Constant fresh boxes with fresh litter are being replaced.”
The other vital component of smell control is simple: Clean the box as often as possible. Scoop it more than once a day if possible. Discard all the litter and clean the box as frequently as you can. At Blue Bell, everything is dumped and cleaned after each use, but even doing this twice a week can help.
Susan says less is more when it comes to the amount of litter in the box. By filling the box just enough for the cat to dig, you can toss the entire box’s contents, litter and all, more frequently without wasting litter, then clean the box and refill it so it’s perfectly clean and inviting to your cat. This method cuts down on odors and reduces the chances of inappropriate elimination.
The Café Meow typically houses 15 adoptable cats on average. Keeping litter-box odors to a minimum is especially important for a place that wants you to feel like enjoying a cup of coffee. The Café Meow manages litter box odor by scooping the boxes throughout the day and regularly deep cleaning them. Two air purifiers also help keep the space smelling clean and fresh.
Cleaning and deodorizing Don’t be tempted to cover up litter box odors with scented litter or perfumed sprays, as this technique can backfire. Many cats are turned off by strong scents and might stop using the box altogether.
“Strong fragrances can be irritating to cats’ eyes and respiratory tracts, especially when added to the litter,” Dr. Simpson says. “An effective and non-irritating option is activated carbon (charcoal). This can be found as an ingredient in many unscented cat litters. Charcoal is also available as a filter or air purifying bag that can be placed in or near a litter box.”
Dr. Simpson says you can also try mixing some baking soda into your cat’s litter. Baking soda acts as a natural deodorizer and can help absorb odors.
To clean the box itself, as well as to clean up accidents outside the box, use the right products. Cat-safe cleaning products work to eliminate odor safely and effectively.
“If you are willing to put in the work to keep their space clean, in turn it will keep your house clean and smelling fresh.”
Dr. Simpson says that most common household cleaners are not appropriate for cleaning pet urine. “It’s best to use an enzymatic cleaner specifically for pet odors, like Nature’s Miracle or Anti-Icky-Poo, to remove odors the first time around so your cat does not revisit the same areas,” she says.
Blue Bell uses an enzymatic germicidal cleaner called Got Pee? “That’s the best product that we’ve found to use,” Susan says. “It doesn’t cover the odor, it’s not perfumed.”
So remember these simple tips: keep your cats using the litter box, clean the box as much as possible, don’t just cover up litter box odors and use the right products for cleaning. This will keep your home free of stink. Rest assured, you’re not destined to live in a home that smells of litter just because you live with feline friends.
Avoid litter-box pitfalls
You might think using a hooded box or keeping the litter boxes hidden in a far way laundry room or basement of your home will cut down on odor, but this only works if the cat uses the box.
“For convenience, many litter boxes are placed in out-of-theway areas,” says Dr. Aimee Simpson, medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia. “Placing your cat’s litter box in a closet or a piece of pet furniture designed to hide the box can trap odors, making the box unpleasant for your cat. Going up and down stairs into a dark and sometimes noisy area can be uncomfortable or even scary to some cats.”
If your cat doesn’t like smells inside a covered box or making the long trek to an out-of-the-way box, she may start urinating and defecating outside the box. In some cases, the cat may develop an aversion to the litter box and seek out other locations in the house to urinate and defecate.
The bottom line? Keep plenty of boxes in convenient places to encourage their use.
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